Sometime between the 17th and early 18th centuries, the British East India Company created a hub of business on the banks of the Hooghly in Bengal, founding a settlement with a factory, a fort named after the reigning English sovereign, King William III, and a church, St Anne’s. The groundwork for this was done when the British obtained from Azim-ush-Shan, Aurangzeb’s grandson and Viceroy of Bengal, “certain privileges of trade as well as permission to rent the three villages of Suttanutee, Govindapore and Calcutta (Kalikata)”, wrote H.E.A. Cotton in 1909. In the course of time, the trio turned into a dizzying megalopolis at the centre of which was Dalhousie Square, known as BBD Bag today. Traces of the grand past still linger in corners of Dalhousie Square even as it undergoes the upheaval that comes from joining Kolkata’s expanding Metro railway network.
The General Post Office (GPO), whose construction was completed in 1868, is located on the Square’s west. It has a marble plaque bearing an inscription saying the south-east bastion of old Fort William was situated there. Annoyed by the peskiness of the British, Siraj-ud-Daula stormed the vulnerable Fort William in June 1756 and partially destroyed the factory, fort, and St Anne’s Church. But the last independent Bengal nawab retreated, disappointed by the paucity of the spoils. A new township came up on the ruins after the old fort was demolished and the garrison shifted to its current location further south, in the vast green space called the Maidan.
The Mahakaran Metro station comes up south of the eponymous iconic red building, which was the headquarters of the “writers” or junior clerks of the East India Company and served until recently as West Bengal’s administrative seat. Mahakaran means secretariat, that is, Writers’ Buildings, Writers’ in short. It is being renovated at present in a project that was announced in 2013.
The Tank Square named after Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of India, in 1865, was renamed in 1969 after Benoy-Badal-Dinesh (“BBD”), the three revolutionaries who shot dead inspector of prisons N.S. Simpson and fought a gun battle in the Writers’ corridors in 1930. It is bound by Writers’ Buildings and the adjacent St Andrew’s Kirk on its north. Old Court House Street is laid out in front of it. On its east is Stephen House terminating with Currency Building, and its southern end is marked by the distinctive architecture of the Central Telegraph Office (originally named Dead Letter Office) with its campanile or Italian bell tower, whose construction was completed in 1876.
On the Square’s west is the GPO designed by Walter Granville, its dome dominating the skyline. Adjacent to it is the Reserve Bank of India ziggurat constructed in 1964, opposite Writers’. The stretch between the two buildings runs parallel to Old Court House Street and is called Netaji Subhas Road: it was originally named after Robert Clive, the hero of the Battle of Plassey (1757), which led to Siraj-ud-Daula’s defeat and India’s thralldom.
However, the heritage precinct of Dalhousie Square covers a much larger space—embracing Strand Road on the west and stretching up to Lower Chitpur (Rabindra Sarani now) on the east; until the Brabourne Road flyover and the Portuguese church on the north; the Treasury Building and Calcutta High Court on the south.
This was the nucleus of “white Calcutta”, as opposed to the messy “black” township of the native people. As its name suggests, the former was once inhabited exclusively by the British and Europeans. The harmoniously laid out streets and stately buildings with a tank (Laldighi), which was excavated bang in the middle for providing clean drinking water, created a semblance of order and discipline that the government’s indifference towards its upkeep, unruly traffic and the ubiquitous presence of hawkers and eateries have not been able to defeat. Laldighi has run wild as it has been closed off for the past four years.
Even after the Indian capital shifted to Delhi from Kolkata in 1911, the city retained its political and financial clout. It started declining from the 1970s, when capital fled as violent trade unionism wrecked industry. Arun Lall, a retired mercantile executive who has lived for seven decades in the magnificent art nouveau gem, Esplanade Mansion, constructed in 1910 by the Jewish tycoon David Ezra, says:
“In the 1950s through to the 1970s, Dalhousie Square was the epitome of good, solid, profitable commerce and industry. There was a multitude of British firms and managing agency houses such as Andrew Yule, Balmer Lawrie, Bird & Company, Brooke Bond India, Duncan Brothers, General Electric Company of India, Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co, James Finlay, Jardine Henderson, Jessop’s, J. Thomas, Macneill & Barry, Martin Burn & Co, McLeod & Co, National Tobacco, Shaw Wallace, Turner Morrison, and Williamson Magor, to name but a few. Added to these hallowed names was a host of well-known tea companies, British banks, and insurance companies.
“They were all housed in magnificent colonial buildings, with each one having its own unique aura and each one offering a long and progressive mercantile career for many a bright young aspirant.” Managing agency companies are gone for good, and the firms that remain are only there in name.
In August 2013, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced a Rs.200 crore project to turn Writers’ Buildings into a modern workplace without compromising on its heritage value. This conglomeration of 13 blocks that housed 34 departments and a workforce of almost 6,000 was in urgent need of restoration. While the administration shifted to Nabanna, a blue-and-white 15-storey building in Howrah, the Public Works Department’s work has progressed under wraps at a snail’s pace in the past nine years. G.M. Kapur, member of governing council and State convener of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), wonders if the administration will start functioning from the building again or whether Writers’ will become a museum. “If its purpose is known it could be designed accordingly,” he says.
Writers’ was not built in a day. In 1776, when Warren Hastings was Governor, the site of the demolished St Anne’s Church and the adjoining plot were granted to Thomas Lyon to construct Kolkata’s first three-storeyed buildings to accommodate the junior servants of the East India Company. The range of buildings that looked like a “shabby hospital, or poor-house” was leased out to the Company for the rent-free accommodation of its writers in 1780. Two 128-ft-long verandas with Ionic style columns, each 32ft high, were added on the first and second floors in 1821. In 1830, private individuals, who were in charge then, turned the buildings into living quarters, shops and warehouses.
Ashley Eden, Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, was told to shift the principal government offices, situated in Sudder Street and Chowringhee, to Writers’. Initially three blocks were constructed. Between 1879 and 1906, two new blocks were added, approached by iron staircases which are still in use. Writers’ acquired its Graeco-Roman look, complete with the portico in the central bay and the red surface of exposed brick.
The parapet was put in place and the statues (sculpted by William Frederick Woodington in 1883) that line the terrace were installed. Minerva stands above the central portico. Before Independence, Writers’ had a large courtyard with seven blocks. By 1970, all 13 blocks were constructed.
The Central government buildings in this zone are periodically spruced up although it is difficult to keep up with the rising damp and the burgeoning parasitic plants. Their architectural beauty is screened by the thick foliage of trees that have shot up haphazardly along pavements. The privately owned buildings have, with a few exceptions, taken a hard beating, with no effort on the part of their owners to disguise their shabbiness, swathed as they are with miles of cable.
Land sharks, economic exigencies brought on by laughably low rents, and high property taxes have often compelled landlords to abandon these white elephants. They have been replaced by ungainly glass boxes that now smother this heritage area.
Dalhousie Square’s harmony was first upset when Dalhousie Institute was demolished to make way for Telephone Bhavan in 1954. LIC, which owns about 80-odd prime properties in Kolkata, is allowing the disintegration of the former Peliti’s restaurant, dating back to 1870 and frequented by Rabindranath Tagore, and the Oriental Assurance Buildings of 1914, gorgeous if overgrown with greenery. The austere stone-clad Mackinnon Mackenzie Building on Strand Road that was gutted in a mysterious fire has since turned into Diamond Heritage, a squat structure offering “ready-to-move-in office spaces”.
Still named Standard Chartered building, although the bank walked out years ago, the domed property with alternating red and white bands belonging to the Burdwan maharajas is caught in a legal battle. The staircase leading to the grand wooden entrance now serves as someone’s bed, protected by a mosquito net. An ornate pavilion installed in Fairlie Place to commemorate the Prince of Wales’ visit is now a battered tea stall. The vast and ornamented Strand warehouse was consumed by flames in 2010.
B.V. Doshi and the late Charles Correa had time and again appealed for the protection of the priceless legacy that is Dalhousie Square. But short-sighted governments obviously are not listening.
Soumitra Das is the author of White & Black: Journey to the Centre of Imperial Calcutta .
- Dalhousie Square is a heritage area in the heart of Kolkata.
- Writers’ Buildings, made by the British for the junior clerks or “writers” of the East India Company, was the administrative seat of West Bengal till recently.
- Writers’ is being renovated at present in a project that was announced in 2013.
- The entire Dalhousie Square area is also undergoing an upheaval as it joins Kolkata’s expanding Metro network.
- The Public Works Department’s work at Writers’ has progressed under wraps at a snail’s pace in the past nine years.
- Other heritage buildings in the area are also falling apart.